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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21386

Senator BOLKUS (2:10 PM) —My question is to Minister Ellison, representing the Attorney-General. Can the minister confirm that yesterday the government applied to the High Court for a closed hearing in the matter of convicted former DIO officer Simon Lappas on the basis that an open hearing could result in the disclosure of security sensitive information? Can the minister confirm that the High Court described the government's application as `totally misconceived' and observed that: the only information `that could possibly prejudice the security of the Commonwealth' was contained in the application filed by the government; this information was `an irrelevancy and should never have been included in the application book'; and, the government had thereby `created an issue concerning security that did not previously exist'. How does the minister explain this bungle, and what steps will he take to ensure the government does not mismanage such security sensitive information in the future?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —It is no secret that in the current environment that the introduction into our courts of sensitive information is of great concern. In fact, countries such as the United Kingdom are looking at this very issue. Recently the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, stated that we were going to look at this and that, if it required amendment, we would put that in place. What we have to look out for is not only the judicial system which is essential to the rule of law but also the security of this country. Obviously, if there are some security aspects which the opposition is not even concerned about, we should be responsible in the way we approach matters which are litigated in open court.

I will take those matters up with the Attorney-General; I will take those matters on notice. But I do remind the opposition that where you have matters of national security you have to approach it with sensitivity and responsibility. We are looking at this across the board as to how evidence can be brought into a court of law where that could be of some national security sensitivity. We are not the only country in the world that is looking at this.

Senator BOLKUS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In asking the question, I also note that it is not the opposition that is making these damning criticisms of the government; it is the highest court in this country. Is the minister aware that former Attorney-General Williams issued a media release in April last year in which he said:

The Government takes the protection of classified information very seriously ... the misuse of national security information has the potential to place the lives of individuals and the security of the nation in jeopardy.

Minister, why did the Howard government abandon this policy when preparing its `totally misconceived' High Court application in the Lappas case?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —The Senate should remember that Senator Bolkus has been the subject of comment in relation to his handling of Federal Court documents. I think that the sort of concern that Senator Bolkus expresses is somewhat shallow in relation to that aspect. When you look at the history of that—

Senator Bolkus —Mr President, I rise on a point of order going to relevance. The question goes to the handling of high-security information by this government and a damning criticism by the highest court in this country. I ask the minister to take the question seriously.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Bolkus, I cannot direct the minister as to how to answer a question but I ask him to return to the question and to attempt to be relevant.

Senator ELLISON —Mr President, it is relevant. The opposition are making out some sort of concern as to the way the government has handled an application to the High Court. The opposition should look at the way they conducted themselves. We do take this matter seriously. I will get back to the Senate on those aspects which I have said I will take on notice. This is an issue which we are addressing—something which the opposition has not even devoted any attention to.